Greg Lindsay's Blog

January 04, 2010  |  permalink

The Morning After

What left is there to say about Delta Flight 253, the Christmas Day flight from Amsterdam to Detroit nearly blown out of the sky by the “pants bomber.” Plenty, actually.

The hysterical overreaction once again underscores Americans’ extreme cognitive dissonance when it comes to flying—we hate it, we’re terrified of it, and yet we can’t stop doing it. The awe of flight seems to tickle something in our reptilian brains, triggering utterly irrational fears. As Suburban Empire points out:

Every thirteen minutes it kills someone in the United Estates, 115 Americans a day die. 42,686 people a year; like a city the size of Grand Junction being wiped off the map. It is not terrorism that draws good people to their untimely deaths each year; it is car accidents…

In order to have the same amount of Americans in danger of succumbing to terrorism as car wrecks; September 11th, 2001 would have to happen three times a month; every month, of every year.

And yet the risk of driving is an acceptable one; no one suggests security checkpoints at the end of every driveway, or mandatory breathalyzer tests before you climb behind the wheel. (I was probably over the legal limit myself driving home from the bars one night in Illinois.) But the pants bomber has rendered full-body imaging scanners a fait accompli. The instant, cynical reaction on the Web was: “This will only make me fly less.” But it won’t.

At least the most inane knee-jerk procedures were repealed after the holiday rush, only to be replaced with a blanket watch list covering anyone with origins in one of fourteen nations, including Pakistan, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia. Anyone who scoffs at the idea of Dubai making a comeback should stop for moment and ponder where the best and brightest of these nations are going to go now that we’ve effectively closed our borders to them. (As if anyone from Nigeria had a hope and a prayer of securing a visa before this). America has just told 300 million people that the border is effectively closed.

Back home, the TSA is keeping us safe by bullying and subpoenaing the bloggers who had the temerity to post the details of the nuttier restriction. As you might imagine, this backfired immediately, inspiring outrage all over the Web. 

Planes vs. Trains

Advocates in favor of high-speed rail have cited the debacle as another instance why America should invest hundreds of billions of dollars in a domestic high-speed rail network, rather than spend tens of billions fixing our airspace and our network of international airports. Writing in tomorrow’s International Herald Tribune, Paul Kennedy makes the case so:

The growing difficulties of traveling by air within one’s own country are even more obvious, and were so even before the latest terrorist incident, even before the 9/11 attacks. The challenge of getting to the airport, checking in two hours early, going through security, learning of delays and cancellations, retrieving one’s luggage afterward, then collapsing exhaustedly at one’s destination, seems to rise holiday by holiday, year by year.

But Kennedy makes a common, fatal mistake: just because train travel is painless now doesn’t mean it always will be. By some bizarre act of cultural amnesia, Americans and Europeans alike have forgotten that fourteen years elapsed between the start of jet service and opening of security checkpoints in America. If you’ve ever wondered why American airports are so overwhelmed by the physical needs of security checkpoints, it’s because nearly all of them opened before magnetometers were in the cards. As Alastair Gordon notes in Naked Airport:

Between 1969 and 1978, there were more than four hundred international hijackings involving over seventy-five thousand passengers. The first wave in America was comparatively benign. Between 1968 and 1972, there were 154 attempted hijackings to Cuba. As one of the hijackers explained, it was the easiest way to get there.

It’s highly unlikely anyone will ever hijack a train and demand safe passage to Cuba, but as residents of London, Madrid, and Mumbai would tell you, there is nothing terrorist-proof about trains. Kennedy goes on to rhapsodize about China’s HSR ambitions (what The Infrastructurist calls “train porn”) but overlooks its equally massive investments in more than two hundred airports around the country. A clearer sign of which mode China favors is its determination to build an aircraft company capable of competing with Airbus and Boeing. It’s content to buy its trains from Bombardier, like everyone else.

The Costs of Staying Home

The true costs of American’s paranoia were duly noted over the weekend by The New York Times’ Liesel Schillinger:

We understand other countries and other peoples best by seeing them; to see them, we must travel; to travel, in any concision of time, we must fly. Last week, one man with a grievance and exploding underpants boarded a plane for Detroit. This week, the nation’s attention and travel plans in the new year are held captive, as the battered American airline industry reels — this after a few months in which airline stocks had finally climbed out of a deep hole, anticipating the possibility of increased air travel in 2010.

The risk of a terrorist disruption of a flight is infinitesimal, but public perception of that risk can be outsize and emotional ... understandably so. Terrorists, like bogeymen, are frightening even when they don’t exist; and when they do appear in broad daylight, citizens who learn that the government failed to shield them from menace feel vulnerable and outraged…

And yet, from the point of view of the individual traveler, a risk-free flight has never existed; nor has a risk-free car trip; nor a risk-free ocean liner voyage; nor a risk-free bike ride. To be alive is to face risks.

The risk is that we will cut ourselves off from the world, even as the TSA and our immigration policies cut the world off from us. Schillinger goes on to tell the story of how a plane crash at O’Hare in 1979 nearly derailed her first trip abroad—a month in France she describes as “the single most formative experience of my young life.” And yet her grandmother railed against her mother for sending her to certain death while “my mother wept with guilt in secret.”

As I read this, I couldn’t help but flash back to the pair of college students who sat behind me on my first domestic flight in China. It was their first flight ever—they were still in their teens, attending school in Tianjin—and before the drinks cart had even rolled down the aisle, they were making plans for a post-graduation trip to Hong Kong.

Travel is good for you. Flying is good for you. Jonah Lerer has the science to back it up:

When we escape from the place we spend most of our time, the mind is suddenly made aware of all those errant ideas we’d previously suppressed. We start thinking about obscure possibilities—corn can fuel cars!—that never would have occurred to us if we’d stayed back on the farm. Furthermore, this more relaxed sort of cognition comes with practical advantages, especially when we’re trying to solve difficult problems.

And the world has no shortage of those at the moment.

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Greg Lindsay is a generalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is a 2022-2023 urban tech fellow at Cornell Tech’s Jacobs Institute, where he leads The Metaverse Metropolis — a new initiative exploring the implications of augmented reality at urban scale. He is also a senior fellow of MIT’s Future Urban Collectives Lab, a senior advisor to Climate Alpha, and a non-resident senior fellow of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Strategy Initiative.

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